Systems thinking and qualitative research are a fruitful combination. Some approaches to systems thinking make use of qualitative inquiry and a systems orientation can be very helpful in making sense out of qualitative data (M.Q. Patton 2015).
Specifically for system dynamics Luna-Reyes and Andersen (2003)(Luna-Reyes and Lines Andersen 2003) posit: “The question for system dynamics appears not to be whether to use qualitative data but when and how to use it” (p. 274). There is qualitative modeling that goes through the process of formalizing and analyzing feedback loops but never results in the simulation of a mathematical system dynamics model. Qualitative methods can contribute to the conceptualization, formulation and assessment of these system dynamics models. Also soft systems methodology makes use of qualitative inquiry throughout its learning cycle, for example to make rich pictures of a problematical situation.
In addition, qualitative research and systems thinking are characterized by the same ontology and – at least for soft systems methodology - epistemology. Both take a non-reductionist and subjectivist position. Qualitative research is interpretive, meaning that qualitative researchers attempt to make sense of phenomena in terms of the meaning people bring to them (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000)(Denzin and Lincoln 2000). Qualitative researchers recognize that the subjectivity of the researcher is intimately involved in scientific research and they make subjectivity their strength, rather than their weakness. This constructivist approach is also key to soft systems methodology (see ADD CROSREFF). Typically qualitative researchers ask how and why questions (see the lower layers of the iceberg model, ADD CROSSREF) as opposed to what, who and where questions (referring to the upper layers of the iceberg model, ADD CROSSREF). Qualitative research is used when things are more complex and not reducible to closed answer categories.
Systems thinking is just another way of seeing, which also offers an alternative to the reductionist way of thinking. As with qualitative research, it is not a matter of which way is best. Systems thinking is complementary, and therefore revealing. As Meadows puts it: “You can see some things through the lens of the human eye, other things through the lens of a microscope, other through the lens of a telescope, and still others through the lens of systems theory. Everything seen through each kind of lens is actually there. Each way of seeing allows our knowledge of the wondrous world in which we live to become a little more complete. At a time when the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more interdependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better” (Meadows 2008)p. 6).